“Rivers Run Black, and Chinese Die of Cancer”

A lengthy front-page article in today’s NY Times delves into the crisis of China’s polluted waters and the death they rain on the Chinese people via cancer and a host of miseries.

Wang Lincheng began his accounting at the brick hut of a farmer. Dead of cancer, he said flatly, his dress shoes sinking in the mud. Dead of cancer, he repeated, glancing at another vacant house.

Mr. Wang, head of the Communist Party in this village, ignored a June rain and trudged past mud-brick houses, ticking off other deaths, other empty homes. He did not seem to notice a small cornfield where someone had dug a burial mound of fresh red dirt.

Finally, he stopped at the door of a sickened young mother. Her home was beside a stream turned greenish-black from dumping by nearby factories – polluted water that had contaminated drinking wells. Cancer had been rare when the stream was clear, but last year cancer accounted for 13 of the 17 deaths in the village.

“All the water we drink around here is polluted,” Mr. Wang said. “You can taste it. It’s acrid and bitter. Now the victims are starting to come out, people dying of cancer and tumors and unusual causes.”

The stream in Huangmengying is one tiny canal in the Huai River basin, a vast system that has become a grossly polluted waste outlet for thousands of factories in central China. There are 150 million people in the Huai basin, many of them poor farmers now threatened by water too toxic to touch, much less drink.

Pollution is pervasive in China, as anyone who has visited the smog-choked cities can attest. On the World Bank’s list of 20 cities with the worst air, 16 are Chinese. But leaders are now starting to clean up major cities, partly because urbanites with rising incomes are demanding better air and water. In Beijing and Shanghai, officials are forcing out the dirtiest polluters to prepare for the 2008 Olympics.

By contrast, the countryside, home to two-thirds of China’s population, is increasingly becoming a dumping ground. Local officials, desperate to generate jobs and tax revenues, protect factories that have polluted for years. Refineries and smelters forced out of cities have moved to rural areas. So have some foreign companies, to escape regulation at home.

Of all China’s many insurmountable challenges, pollution may be at the very top of the list. The good Chairman Mao helped the crisis blossom back when he made it a stated goal to defy nature and set up smokestack factories in the heart of neighborhoods. Looking back at the CCP’s history, it reads like a primer for how to rape and ruin the environment. (Jasper Becker’s The Chinese is a good source for horror stories on this topic.)

This may be the scariest piece I’ve read yet on how pollution is killing the Chinese people. The stories of black rivers and uncontrolled dumping of millions of tons of toxic chemicals every day into China’s waterways can only make the reader feel helpless — because it appears absolutely nothing can be done to stop it, let alone reverse it. Too many local cadre officials benefit from the chemical companies and tanneries that foul the water. Regulations and controls eat into profits. So it’s far simpler to slip an official a bribe and continue the destruction.

The scariest aspect of this story is the sheer selfishness and staggering carelessness of the perpetrators. We’d like to think that people consider the lives of their children and their countrymen instead of focusing only on the immediate profit. That’s not the case here. It’s as though they just don’t give a damn, as long as they’re going to make some extra yuan.

And it’s not only the Chinese. A lot of foreign companies, as the article points out, set up their factories in China precisely because they can avoid the annoying rules and regulations of the West. Apparently it’s okay to mutilate the environment, if the victims are yellow or brown people. (Anyone remember Bhopal?)

The article interviews the victims of this carelessness. Their stories are infuriating, heartbreaking, maddening — because there doen’t seem to be any viable solution. It’s a vicious circle, fueled by lawlessness, corruption, greed and a fuck-you attitude that is difficult to comprehend.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

I keep seeing that World Bank stat about China having 16 of the top 20 most air-polluted cities. Does anyone have the actual report, or the names of the cities?

September 11, 2004 @ 7:46 pm | Comment

And China’s environmental problems aren’t just a local concern — ultimately they may end up affecting the entire world.

To cite a fairly innocuous example, every so often the Western U.S. has its skies smudged by dust clouds blown across the Pacific from China, some of which might very well be a consequence of human-induced desertification. These might actually not be entirely innocuous, since microorganisms could potentially accompany those dust particles (corals in the Caribbean are being killed by viruses similarly “exported” from the Sahara).

And as anyone who’s spent any time in Hong Kong knows, some of its smog is made in China too.

Finally, a real concern for the entire planet is the gigantic sewer now spreading eastward from Chongqing. China already is “the world’s Petri dish” (as I believe Conrad once remarked); how much worse will it be when a huge population whose immune systems are already weakened by pollution is exposed to that immense, stagnant reservoir of bacteriological horrors?

When — not if — new virulent diseases emerge from China and spread over the world that has benefited so greatly from its lax approach to environmental regulation, it’ll be blowback in the most literal sense.

September 12, 2004 @ 3:17 am | Comment

When the US ratifices Kyoto and puts the environment before profit, then I would care.

The levels of low level ozone and other polutants in some of America’s national parks are so dangerous that they have to close selected areas every summer, and acid rain has caused mass deforistation in Canada and the US.

This might not be as bad as it is in China, but if the world’s richest nation can’t clean up its act then how can we ask China to do it.

September 12, 2004 @ 4:11 am | Comment

Good question, Dennis. I think the table cited is the one here; a World Bank Air Pollution Table (scroll about half way down the page to find the link – it’s a pdf). The key column is the Total Suspended Particulates. The other 4 cities in the top 20 – according to this table – are in India, and I think Mexico City might creep in but you’ll have to check yourself on that one.

You can also see a Chinese list here. It’s from last month and the government produces one each year. Interesting to see how it does (or doesn’t ) match up.

Make sure when you check out the NYT piece to click on the interactive media link on the right and see how the pollution really is.

September 12, 2004 @ 5:27 am | Comment

Hong Kong has a secondhand pollution problem from China, that’s true…the air gets very acrid.

But the West Coast USA??? What’s the back-up evidence, plse?

September 12, 2004 @ 9:23 pm | Comment

I heard that the British found fallout from US nuclear blasts during the 1950-60 in Scotland and that Chynoble contaminated Scotish fields, they’re both in opposite directions and both contaminated Britain, so it is not impossible that Chinese pollutionis impacting on America, but I think that the pollution in the US is probably a local issue.

US factories and US automobile pumping out millions of tonnes of pollution in their own gardens, and a US government blaiming everybody but the US.

September 12, 2004 @ 10:47 pm | Comment

Pollution is a serious problem here, but we at least have tough standards and offenders can be put in jail. Any comparison of China’s levels of pollution with America’s is ludicrous. Sure, things have gotten worse under bush, but thank God we are decades away from black rivers and cities of death, as described in the article. Of course, if bush steals the election again, the timeline will certainly be accelerated.

September 12, 2004 @ 10:54 pm | Comment

Asia by blog

The posts that matter by Asian blogs… Hong Kong, Taiwan and China HK’s elections are done: full results at ESWN. Looking at the results are Pieter who sees this campaign’s dirty tricks as a sign of maturing democracy; Phil who looks at the disappoint…

September 13, 2004 @ 12:57 am | Comment

Here’s an article about Chinese dust in North America.

It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. And of course it’s not smog, just tiny dust particles high in the atmosphere. But it’s still a reminder that contrary to what many people seem to think, environmental issues in faraway countries can and do affect us all eventually.

September 14, 2004 @ 12:10 am | Comment


I accessed the article you suggested. It’s about a Gobi dust storm, that blew West.

It’s a weather phenom, not fall-out from China’s pollution.

When Krakatoa exploded in 19th century Indonesia, it caused red sunsets for weeks as far away as New York (if I remember correctly, but it was certainly far, far away).

It’s quite a different thing from China being a cause of America’s own environmental degradation…USA is the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse-effect gases

September 16, 2004 @ 3:29 am | Comment

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